Hoisting the Tricolour in Kashmir: Search for the fifty-seventh inch

The idea of hoisting the tricolour in the Kashmir valley must be seared in the mind of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He can probably never forget the embarrassment of January 26, 1992 when he accompanied Murli Manohar Joshi, then the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to hoist the tricolour at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk. He was the coordinator of the 15,000 km long Rashtirya Ekta Yatra (national unity march) led by Joshi from Kanyakumari to Kashmir to hoist the tricolour in Srinagar.

Photographs of that winter morning morning show Joshi fidgeting with the national flag he had brought with him and Modi next to him in a thick woollen bund-gullah jacket. Media reports claim that as Joshi raised the flag at Lal Chowk, the flag-pole broke into two, hitting and injuring him. As a replacement flag provided by the local administration was then hoisted, a total of 67 BJP workers present reportedly shouted Vande Mataram feebly. Not a single Kashmiri was present.

As the security situation did not permit the march along the Jammu-Srinagar highway, Joshi and Modi were air-lifted to Srinagar under the cover of darkness in an AN-32 aircraft of the Border Security Force. It was put out that the highway had been blocked by landslides. They reached Srinagar on Republic Day eve, staying in a BSF mess near the airport. The next morning they were driven to to Lal Chowk in a police car. Modi was to later boast that he had walked into Lal Chowk without even wearing a bulletproof vest with the tricolour in hand to challenge the militants (a video of his self-laudatory speech with the hashtag #IsupportNamo is available on the social media). He made no mention of Joshi and was accused of rewriting history. 

A CRPF jawan stands guard as situation in Kashmir continues to be tense and uncertain, in Srinagar, Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019. There are apperhenensions of prolonged law and order problem in the Valley | Photo: PTI
Nearly four decades later, the Modi government has announced that this Independence Day, the tricolour will be unfurled in each of the 2000-odd panchayats of the Valley. The embarrassment of January 1992 is sought to be avenged in August 2019, to somehow set history right.

In 1992 the situation in the Kashmir Valley was very different. Militants with guns controlled the streets in Srinagar and in the rural hinterland. Many areas had been fortified as ‘liberated zones’. Militancy related incidents had increased 12 times from 390 in 1988, touching 5,000 in 1992 and militants openly attacked security force pickets. With militants armed with Pakistan supplied weapons, including rocket launchers, it was a war-like situation.

Today the situation in the Valley is qualitatively better. On July 24, Minister of State for Home Affairs G Krishan Reddy informed Parliament that net infiltration had gone down by 43 per cent, local recruitment to militancy by 40 per cent, and terrorist initiated incidents by 28 per cent. Meanwhile action by the security forces against militants had gone up by 59 per cent increasing neutralisation of terrorists by 22 per cent. 

Despite this, 38,000 additional troops have been inducted into the Valley, in addition to the 90,000 already deployed there along with the local police. Union Home Ministry sources claim that the additional troops will ensure security for village level flag-hoisting ceremonies. Meanwhile, in view of the prevailing security situation, the Amarnath pilgrimage has been cancelled and the Amarnath pilgrims, tourists and non-Kashmiri students in the Valley have been asked to leave.

These are unprecedented measures, raising intense speculation about the government’s intentions. The evidence presented by the government of a heightened security threat from across the border and of a potential attack on either the pilgrims to Amarnath or tourists is pretty weak. 

Rumours are milling around about the possible trifurcation of the State or revocation of Article 35A of the Constitution which gives special rights to the permanent citizens of the state (“state subjects” as they are called). The Modi government is known for its surprises, but both speculations seem far-fetched. The trifurcation of the state cannot be achieved without elaborate procedures involving Parliament and the state assembly. 

Revoking Article 35A is, however, possible through a presidential proclamation after the Budget session of parliament. However, if its purpose is to effect a demographic transition by allowing outsiders to buy land in the Valley, that objective will not be realised overnight. Besides it is doubtful whether the majority community from the rest of India can be persuaded to buy land in the Valley if Jammu Dogras and Kashmiri pundits have not so far done so despite being state subjects. 

Prime Minister Modi draws inspiration from the slogan coined by his party’s icon, Syama Prasad Mookherjee “Ek Nishan, Ek Vidhan, Ek Pradhan” (One flag, one Constitution and one sovereign head) against the exceptionalism of Jammu and Kashmir. Whatever action he takes, would assert a strong unitary idea of the State that is essential to the BJP’s conception of nationalism. This could just be unfurling the tricolour in every Kashmir village or ultimately revoking Article 35A and, the hollowed out but symbolic, Article 370 of the Constitution.

Hoisting the national flag in every village in J&K on this Independence Day may just be the beginning. It would be persuasive propaganda – as the vast majority in India unaware of the history of accession of the state would welcome it. Such symbolic assertion will feed a huge national and international audience. It will also signal that the long-term demand of the BJP that J&K should become like any other state of India is finally being realised under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership. In addition, it would reinforce the subliminal message that all those who refuse to unfurl the national flag on Independence Day are necessarily anti-national.

With the flag hoisting in every Kashmiri village, Prime Minister Modi would have achieved where his predecessors had failed. If, he or the Union Home Minister were to go personally to unfurl the flag in Srinagar, the propaganda victory would be complete. The embarrassment of 1992 would have been buried in a national celebration. Prime Minister Modi would feel he has redeemed himself, his leadership and the Indian nation.

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